Thursday, May 8, 2014

Daniel Shin on Why History Matters: The Methodist Heritage in the History of Christian Mission (Part III)

Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Dr. Daniel Shin, Bishop Cornelius and Dorothye Henderson/E. Stanley Jones Chair of Evangelism and Assistant Professor of Evangelism at the Interdenominational Theological Center. This post is the second of a three-part response by Dr. Shin to Robert Hunt's comments on the seventh section of the document, "United Methodism in Mission Today."  The first post can be found here, and the second post here.  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

In my first two posts, I responded to and expanded upon Hunt’s observation that there is in the Mission Statement of The United Methodist Church: Grace Upon Grace a problematic jump from Jesus to Wesley and the distinctive heritage of Methodism without due attention to the history of mission in the intervening years.  Having addressed this concern, I will conclude with some of my own thoughts on the section “United Methodism in Mission Today.” 

Clearly Hunt is on to something important and I find his suggestion to observe and listen also to bear enormous potential in reconceiving the mission of our church. Simple but profound practices of observing and listening can be enlightening and liberating. I think when he alerts us to the questionable leap from Jesus to the rise of Methodism he is in fact inviting us to observe and listen. It is by observing and listening, we assist the invisible and hidden persons to become visible (Paragraph 35). I would add one more, the need for repentance, which I define as rightly understanding ourselves before God and other.[1] When repentance is understood as related to our self-understanding, we can return to Hunt’s emphasis on self-understanding with a greater sense of what that means for today’s mission.

Speaking of repentance, the Statement recognizes the church’s past temptation to intermix “mission activities with national ambition, economic gains, and cultural values” (Paragraph 26) and racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression (Paragraphs 16 and 55). It continues, “When we yield to temptations, repentance is in order. The church prays for forgiving grace, for renewing grace, and for empowering grace” (Paragraph 55). This is good but is this enough? Before we become advocates of the hidden, invisible, and forgotten among us (Paragraph 35), perhaps the first order of business is to observe, listen, and rightly understand ourselves in light of the realities we cannot ignore: our sin of extermination of the Native Americans (Paragraph 24), dehumanizing African-Americans through chattel slavery (Paragraph 18 and 19), and other acts of violence around the world. It is in this context we must return to the gospel “to recognize the world for what it is; powers organized in opposition to God. Ours is a world filled with unbelief, a world whose social systems often express structured evil, and a world populated with people who need God. To recognize that this world is subject to principalities and powers (Romans 8:38, Colossians 1:16) is a work of grace. Grace enlightens and grace enlivens. By grace, hiddenness brought to sight allows sight to envision mission” (Paragraph 40). If I am not mistaken, Hunt expresses deep reservations about this passage in light of the church’s imperialistic practices of mission in non-Christian contexts perpetuating false binary oppositions, such as saved vs. lost, hammer vs. nail, and enlightened vs. ignorant. If so, I agree with his reservations and also suggest that we interpret Paragraph 40 to be about standing within the prophetic tradition of our mission (Paragraph 38) that reminds us of the importance of the doctrine of sin in dealing with the human condition at both individual and macro levels, especially when it comes to the liberation of the oppressed.

And, if it is true that “Christianity is always emerging out of the engagement of the gospel narrative with widely varying human self-understanding,” as Hunt suggests, then the practices of observation, listening, and repentance holds enormous potentials for mission not only among the non-Christians and “non-persons” but also for emerging Christianity at home as we grapple with who we are before God and others. But to dwell there would be an inordinate absorption in self-analysis that smacks of omphaloskepsis. Given how human self-understanding is not confined to a self-enclosed vacuum of inward consciousness but deeply shaped by its relations to the public world, and given the section under discussion “United Methodism in Mission Today,”[2] I think it is appropriate to reflect on W. E. B. Dubois’ call to action in the world: “Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.”

[1] I am following here Wesley’s understanding of repentance, which includes the following: self-knowledge as a sinner, remorse for sin, and a desire to turn to God. See John Wesley’s sermons, “The Way to the Kingdom,” “On working out our own salvation,” and “The Repentance of Believers.”

[2] The Statement speaks of our mission as that of an “ism” which suggests a system of thought, principle, practice, or ideology, rather than a social and religious entity in movement and action. There is indeed a dimension of the United Methodist movement that is theoretical and rational in character but it would be appropriate to highlight the social and ecclesial aspect of the movement in mission, that is, The United Methodist Church.

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